The Lone Star Freistaat

In the coffee room at work, a young woman hissed at me. “Sei nicht fies!

Her colleague from the accounts department clarified the point. “Are you trying to offend us, or are you just misinformed?”

“You should get out more,” suggested my boss, “You’d know better.”

What earned such scorn?  A simple remark, so innocent that I thought little of it.

Some colleagues were planning a visit to Pullman City, a Western theme park near Passau.  My response to the news was: Well, you know what they say.  Bavaria is the Texas of Germany.

A few in the coffee room had heard this expression. Others hadn’t.  Those who had heard it before, declared the expression to sound old and lame.  Those who had never heard it before declared it to sound old and lame, too.   Nobody could quite agree what the phrase meant.  But clearly, they didn’t like it.

Americans react differently.   I tell American visitors that those aspects of Bavarian culture they find perplexing make much more sense if they remember that Bavaria is the Texas of Germany.  And they totally get it.

“Oookaaay”, they say with the clipped precision of a New Englander, the flat tones of the Midwest, or with complex New Jersey vowels, “so you mean that larger-than-necessary Landhof near Amberg with the religious fresco on the wall is really, like, a McMansion  in Fort Worth with a Tuscan fresco on the wall?”

“Precisely,” I say.  And when they see the ornate rococo church of St. Georg in Amberg, they understand more completely, since it probably resembles one of the McMansion’s smaller bathrooms.

A sticky idea

Indeed, the Bavaria-is-Texas meme has been abroad in English for quite some time.  Texas lawyer and lexicographer Barry Popik, in his indispensable blog The Big Apple, traces the phrase back to 1954.   A Mr. C..A. Tatum, President of the Dallas Power and Light Company, spoke about Bavaria for the Texas Salesman’s Club.   During his visit, he remarked that Bavarian scenery must be among the prettiest in the world.  A local returned the compliment, stating “proudly” that Bavaria is, indeed, the Texas of Germany.

This may have been a simple politeness.  If a visitor came from Minsk, might not his host have declared Bavaria to be the Belarus of Germany?  Flattery pays, after all.

Whatever its origin, the metaphor stuck.  President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan of some stature and not a little whiskey-fuelled craziness, played it up.  His daughter, Linda Byrd Johnson, visited Bavaria during his presidency and spoke of the “special bond” between the two states.

This cultivated the votes of many German-Americans, whose ancestors settled east Texas between the wars of 1848 and 1871.  It was these immigrants, by the way, who taught cowboys to yodel.  And America never thanked them.

What makes the comparison ring true?  Americans and Germans have a love-hate relationship with their most prominent states.  Like all love, and all hate, it’s impossible to justify with reason.   But here are a few reasons, large and small, which bubble to the surface of the cybersphere.

My state ‘tis of thee.

Most comparisons between the two states begin by pointing out that neither is particularly happy being a state.  Each was once its own country, and had to give up territory to fit into a federal union.  Bavarians have not forgotten the Palatinate, and Texans will not forget the eastern half of New Mexico and Colorado.  In Franconia, (a.k.a. the Bavarian Panhandle) some want to take away even more territory.  And Bavaria would still be big.

Illustration by Florian Nöhbauer & Leo Slawik

Sheer size defines both states.  Bigness means power, authority, and even a little arrogance—Bavaria and Texas consider themselves the most important states in their respective countries.

Fellow countrymen can detect a dismissive tone from their southernmost tips.  And you know what?  It bothers the Texan or Bavarian not one bit.  Could it be that the rest of the country’s citizens are just jealous of their size, wealth and influence?  That’s the standard explanation.

The need for speed.

One of the downsides of being so big, is that it takes some time to get around the place.  That’s why Texans are, to use a Texan term, leadfoots.

The marvelous Frau A., an adopted Texan who now lives in Bavaria, blogs at schnitzelbahn.com.  In April, she noted an occasion to celebrate the similarities between the two states.  Texas, she wrote, was about to raise its speed limit to 85 miles an hour (136 kph).    This would make Texas the fastest state in the USA.

Is Bavaria the fastest state in Germany?  Yes, there are patches of autobahn in most Bundesländer where speed is not controlled.  But it strikes me that a disproportionate number are in Bavaria.  If you drive the A8 with any regularity, you’ll notice that the radar warnings kick in just over the border with Baden-Württemburg.  All Germans like to drive fast, but here in Bavaria speed limits are considered a human rights violation.

Too much religion; not enough sex.

When my partner and I performed our Lebenspartnershcaft, we expected to have a civil ceremony in the town hall.   Ah, not allowed in Bavaria, we were told, because of the Freistaat’s conservative attitude to religion.   We needed to get civilly unioned in a private notary’s office, away from the gaze of impressionable others.  “Bavaria, you know, is the Texas of Germany”, our celebrant reminded us.

The Baptists in Texas hold the same sway as Catholics here in Bavaria, it seems.

David Vickery, an American writer who comments on matters to do with Germany, reminded us last year that both Bavaria and Texas like to censor educational materials.  The example he gave was a passage in an ESL textbook which stated, quite correctly, that those Americans who believe in a literal interpretation of the bible tend to have less education.  Texas insists that there be no suggestion that Creationism does not stand on equal footing with Evolution, and so does Bavaria, it seems.

Thankfully,  Bavaria is ahead of Texas in many respects.  For one thing, were my partner and I married today in Bavaria, we could do it in the town hall.

But in Texas, there is neither gay marriage nor a civil union; homosexual acts were decriminalized only as late as 2003.  Still, one cannot sell a dildo in Texas, and indicate what it might be used for.  Legally, any object shaped like a penis in Texas must be provided purely as an aid to anatomical education.  And it can’t vibrate, either.

Bavarians, you think you’re conservative….

Lose a syllable here or there.

I consulted Christine, another purebread Texan who lives in Bavaria, on the subject of language.  Both Texans and Bavarians talk funny, don’t they?

“It’s a matter of perspective. Everybody talks funny to someone else,” she chided.  “But Bavarians and Texans do cut corners.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

She challenged me. “Think of a typical Bavarian word.”

“Um…Brez’n

“Now think of a typical Texas word.”

“That’s easy.  It’s y’all.”   Y’all is short for you all, and roughly translates as euch.

“What do you notice about the two words?”

I had to confess that I could find little to compare the two, until she wrote it down.  It’s the apostrophe.  Both Texans and Bavarians like to ditch a sound or two when they can get away with it, and the apostrophe signals that you’re supposed to think the habit is  cute.  Wies’n and Stuber’l, fixin’s and sure’nuff.  You can smell the folky charm that floats from the punctuation.

Ultra-America.  Über-Deutschland.

What do you think of when you think of America?  Cowboys?  Rodeos?  Drive-in cinemas?   Slabs of steak?  Open roads filled with Mustangs and Camaros?  Fast-food restaurants with waitresses on roller skates?   A traffic cop on his Harley wearing mirrored Ray-Bans and chomping a short cigar as he tells you that you have one telephone call for bail?

You don’t find all that in Massachusetts. When the world thinks of America, the first images that come to mind are quintessentially Texan.

And when people abroad think of Germany; they’re really thinking of  Bavaria.

It surprises visitors to (lesser) Germany that not every beer glass contains a litre…and, indeed, that it’s made of glass.  Not every woman has a bustline pushed to her chin by a tight bodice.  And not every fellow is wearing leather shorts.   You have to go to Bavaria for that.

Folk goes formal

For a moment, let’s think about the Japanese kimono.

It started life as a humble daily garment.  The rich even wore kimono as underwear.  Nowadays, the kimono is far from humble.  Though it’s a folk costume, it is deemed to be formal wear, suitable for the highest social occasions.

Is this not so, too, for Trachten?   If you are invited to a wedding in Bavaria, you can wear Tracht and hold your head high amongst those in gowns and suits.  What started out as working gear for humble farmers and hunters, has become a kit for formal celebrations.

Bavarians may be surprised to hear it, but the same goes for Texas folk costume.  Attend a wedding in, say, El Paso, and you’ll see many a man with his string tie held together by a turquoise clasp.  He’ll wear cowboy boots—expensive ones, of course.  And he’ll dress up his jeans with a sports coat which upholsters his shoulders in a different cloth from his body.  He will  scoff at those who shop at Brooks Brothers, just like a hardline Bavarian scoffs at people who dress in dreary old lounge suits.

Do you deserve to be rich?

“Texas is about oil.  It defines the place,” remarked one of my colleagues as we discussed the matter further.   “We don’t have oil to make us rich.”

“But you do have salt,” I countered.  “Or, at the very least, you had someone else’s salt passing through.  It made Bavaria well-to-do, in the same way oil did for Texas.”

“Hmmm…” he thought.  “Black gold versus white gold.  You might have a point…”

Indeed, and the point is this.  The rest of the country thinks that both Texas and Bavaria got rich through dumb luck.  And somehow, neither Texas nor Bavaria earned their wealth properly.  That is, not through knowledge, intelligence, sophistication or hard work.  Otherwise, both states would be full of country bumpkins, and skint ones at that.

I suspect this was what my colleagues objected to the most.  Bavaria has a long history of culture, refinement and education; Texas, on the other hand, is a full of…well, hicks.

Alas, this just proves my point.  Texans live with the same frustration.

Yes, there was natural wealth in Texas.  But like Bavarians, Texans used this natural advantage to create something richer.  Houston has one of the finest opera companies in the world.  Dallas boasts astonishing collections of visual art.   The capital Austin, like Munich, is home to one of the largest student populations in its nation—which gives it a lively music and political scene.  The climate and a lifestyle of abundance have helped attract creative and high-tech industries.  Yet nobody thinks of this when they think of Texas.  Just like Bavaria.

My colleagues agreed.  If that’s what it means, they said, then the saying is correct.   Bavaria is best known for her rustic scenery, when her thinkers, artists, scientists and businessmen really make the place cool.

This settled the argument, until I pointed out that the best known “Pullman City” in North America is actually a suburb of Chicago.  Then it started all over again.

Illustration of Rodeo Ludwig by Florian Nöhbauer & Leo Slawik

The Real Bavaria

I’m standing in front of the Hotel Wolf in Oberammergau, trying to decide if it’s real.   Foreigners who live in Bavaria find such decisions difficult

Flowers pour out from the window boxes like lava.  The vibrant reds and pinks call to mind a Barbie Corvette or a Hello Kitty pencil case.  The forest-green shutters appear functional—in these days of double glazing and central heat, one wonders why.

Birch trees which stand before it form a perfect cone, but not too perfect.  Small breaks in their symmetry remind us nature is at work.  The trees look so natural, so suited to their location, so charming, that a non- Bavarian can reach only one conclusion.  They must be fake.

When the more avant-garde of my friends come from abroad to visit, they make it clear what they want from a local like me.  They want to see the real Bavaria.  Not the Bavaria of alpine kitsch and cutesy schmarm.  Not phony tourist traps with a gingerbread facade, and schmuck hanging from every eave. Not the fake Bavaria, just put on for the tourists.

It pains me to disappoint them.  Berlin may cultivate a seedy, South-Bronx persona, but the Freistaat has no such ambitions.   Bavarians do live a very, very cute life.

Bavaria.  Hyper-Germany.

Bavaria is just a little too German.   If Germans love beer, then Bavarians love beer just that bit more; enough to drink it from impossibly large glass mugs, which English-speakers incorrectly call steins.   They notice that locals use cuckoo clocks not for ornament, but actually to tell the time.  A Bavarian businessman in Lederhosen meets an overseas colleague, who thinks they’re off to a fancy-dress party afterward.   The backpacker sees cheesy pretzels in a shop window, and assumes it’s a little trick the baker picked up from McDonald’s.

It surprises those from abroad that the modern Bavarian—who may be a biotech researcher, a global insurance risk-assessor, a luxury automotive designer, a software engineer or a symphony cellist—wears a Jägerhutte, eats at an Ecktisch and sits on the waiting list for a Kleingarten.

English hasn’t borrowed many words from German in the last several decades, but one of them is kitsch—and Bavaria is largely responsible.

Could people actually live like that, we wonder?   Could this be real?   Bavaria smells phony.

Why?  Because most cheesy, fairy-tale fakery in the modern world is modelled on the cheesy, fairy-tale reality of Bavaria.  Southeastern Germany exports many things, and the most  prominent is a mental picture of what cute should look like.

We can imagine a number of reasons.

Unbelievable Bavaria.  Three reasons.

First, Bavaria is rich.  (You, personally,  may not feel rich.  But it’s true.)  For example, Bavarians are among the few people in the world who can, in large numbers, buy the cars Bavarians make.

Let’s be blunt: Rich people keep things nice.  Cleanliness and order, in so much of the rest of the world, are highly un-natural states.   Especially for Americans, who have, by and large, given up on effective investment in public works.

In a non-Bavarian’s mind, smooth country roads through verdant meadows, free of litter and billboards, always lead to hotel resorts or country clubs.  That mere citizens can enjoy it—rather rather than guests, members, or customers—strikes us as odd.

No, more than that.  It strikes us as suspicious.

Second, let’s blame some of your neighbours in Baden-Württemburg.  The Faller model company of Gütenbach made many a model railway come alive for children across the planet.  It did for me.

While they took care to reproduce buildings from all parts of Germany, it feels like Faller often looked over the fence to the Freistaat.  If one has a keen eye, one can see Württemburgish cues in the little railway stations and warehouses.  But to me, my model train village pops up everywhere around me, now that I live in Bavaria.

Onion-domed churches.   Shops with flat-facades and stepped-eaves.  White walls beneath dark birch cladding.  Electric trollybuses—what an exotic way to get around!

Southern Germany, especially the region of Bavaria around Nuremberg, is a powerhouse for playthings.  For many children around the world, the first image of Bavaria is through a toy.  (By the way, it’s not for nothing that the major website serving English speakers in Germany, such as myself, is called ToyTown).

When such an adult sees Bavaria for the first time, his toy-fuelled instincts react.  It must be pretend.  Those people are just playing at life.  Like the little figures, arranged perfectly, around my 130398 Winkelbungalow mit Balkon, all those years ago.

The third reason: well, some of the most prominent icons of Bavaria actually are fake.  They were faked so long ago, though, that people forget.

Take Neuschwanstein.

Most visitors to Bavaria want to see the “real” building whose image has been seared into their brains as the archetypal mediaeval fortress.  One in which fairy-tale characters frolicked, fought, or found love.

A story circulates about a Californian family visiting Neuschwanstein.  Standing before the drawbridge, the mother declared “There it is! Sleeping Beauty’s palace!”

Her ten-year old son shook his head skeptically.  “Does Disney know about this?” he asked.

And ask, he well might.  This castle is no more mediaeval than Groucho Marx, Sigmund Freud or Charlie Chaplin.

But the Ludwig-fuelled building boom of the late 19th century meant that the Bavarian monarch could do exactly what Disney did some seventy years later.   Imitate something so well, and so perfectly, that it becomes our idea of the original should have looked like, if only those knights and kings and whatnot knew better. .

Neuschwanstein feels so mediaeval, you expect a dragon to fly in and perch on a turret.

The Munich Town Hall is another example.  It oozes Gothic camp from every crumb of its aging mortar.  Gargoyles, serpents, witches, seraphs, demons and angels abound.

But since it was completed in 1901, it remains an affront to a city which was busy inventing art noveau, through Jugendstil.  But if you didn’t come from Bavaria, you wouldn’t know it.

Estas echt?

OK, is the Hotel Wolf for real?   The question still un-nerves me.

I guess that all hotels put on some kind of theatre for tourists.  But by Bavarian standards, the Wolf’s enormous botanical abundance isn’t over the top.

The windows at my local billiard hall in Munich look much the same.  And while this pool parlour welcomes all visitors warmly, I suspect they cater to a Bavarian public who could see through any insincerity.

A safe bet.  Very little in Bavaria actually is fake.  It’s all real, but just too damned nice.